Inside Geneva: Can the city of peace stop the arms race?

By Imogen Foulkes in Geneva
This content was published on February 11, 2019

The mushroom cloud photographed from the ground on August 9, 1945 after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan

Last week on the train to Geneva, I heard the tell-tale wail of sirens. That time of year again: to dust off the bunkers that every upstanding Swiss household has, test those blast-proof doors, and make sure those sirens can still howl in unison.

For so many years, Swiss civil defence was treated by many of us as a bit of a joke; I remember doing a very tongue-in-cheek report which included a scene in which my neighbour and I drank coffee in her bunker, surrounded by skis and bottles of wine.

No one, the jokey message suggested, ever expected those bunkers to be used for their original purpose…but they were awfully useful as wine cellars, ski depots, or at a pinch, ‘I want to be alone’ spaces for truculent teenagers.

But, just a couple of days after that annual siren test, an information sheet from the ICRC fluttered into my inbox, asking: ‘Is the world ready to face a nuclear war?’
The word ‘NO’ springs to mind faster than the speed of, well, one of those inter-ballistic missiles that can apparently reach their well-populated targets in a few short minutes.

Arms control
Switzerland regrets the suspension of INF nuclear treaty

On Friday, the Trump administration said it was withdrawing from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
Rising tide of nuclear risks

The answer from the ICRC is a resounding ‘NO’ too. For some years now, the organisation has been urging member states to back the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. ICRC President Peter Maurer views the treaty as ‘a beacon of hope and an essential measure to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe’.

The most ‘devastating and destructive weapons ever invented’ the ICRC believes, can almost certainly never be used in accordance with international humanitarian law. How can a weapon designed to eradicate entire cities ever honour the principles of proportion or distinction?

Unfortunately, governments have not been rushing to sign up to the treaty; none of the nuclear powers have touched it, and in Europe just three states have ratified it: Austria, the Holy See, and San Marino.

Instead, all the signs are there, says Marc Finaud of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, that the world is headed for another arms race.

“We are in this race,” says Finaud, an arms proliferation expert and former French diplomat, “and it is very hard to find any nuclear country that is not engaged in this race.”

Tit-for-tat arms race
This month’s announcement by Washington that the US would withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is, he says, not the first but just the latest sign that arms control has slipped dangerously low on the global agenda.


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